The night on the train, one of my worst in existence. I moved from Hanoi down to Hue. While Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, some people call Hue the cultural center. Hue was the capital before 1945, when the communist government took over the country. Hue houses the Imperial Palace, a lot of imperial tombs and quite a few pagodas.
There are several ways to get to Hue from Hanoi, chief among those, by rail or bus. Having taken an overnight bus in Thailand, I wanted to check out the train experience. It is a 12 hour train ride, so I figured would get really ritzy and pay $50 for the soft berth, a cushioned mat that acts as a bed for me to pass the hours comfortably.
That’s what I paid for, and that is what I got, with a bitter, bitter twist. Coming to the station, a man at the ticket gate asked me to see my ticket, he looked at it, handed it to someone who punched a whole through it, then the first man grabbed my rolling suitcase and navigated me to the correct car and berth. Once inside, he held out his hand. Then it hit me, I had heard about this scam, I had read about this scam. I thought I was prepared for it, but he moved so fast and efficiently that I didn’t quite process what was going on.
I rationalized, it would have taken me a few minutes to figure out how to read my ticket and find the right place, so I’d tip him. I pull out a 20,000 dong bill. I assumed the equivalent of $1 was enough. He tells me no, it costs 50,000 dong. I laugh at him and say no. He goes into his wallet and pulls out a 50,000 bill to give me an example and continues standing there. Then he starts speaking loudly and I’ll admit it, I felt uncomfortable enough that I wanted him out of my face. I buckled and pulled out a larger bill. Then he gives me the wrong change back, to which I exclaim, “Are you kidding me!” While this sounds innocent enough, I have recently noticed that I use this phrase when I am about to lose my shit and raise hell.
He quickly gave me the correct change and then clears out, but not before grabbing one of my braids to examine it. To start my hellish night on the train dealing with that dreadful crook left me in the worst of moods.
In my berth already was one other woman. We quickly established that she only spoke Vietnamese and I only spoke English. We also established that I was going to Hue and she was going to Da Nang.
Next, her husband came in and they proceeded to have a very loud conversation which lasted six hours, intermittently, of the twelve hour train ride. Finally, another man wandered into the room, pulled out an iPad, tossed his bag under my bed and proceeded to sit down on my bed and surf the net.
I passive aggressively gave him a death stare for a few minutes. When he glanced around and saw me glaring back at him he stood up and moved to the top bed. I would have happily taken the top bunk, but I did not want to be sleeping near three strangers and far away from my belongings too. As it was, I used my handbag as my pillow.
Momentarily after he climbed up to the top bunk, I noticed dirty feet dangling over the edge, invading my space. The grimace on my face deepened.
I slept entirely uncomfortably through the night, I woke up at least hourly in paranoid fits. Finally, at 5:30 I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to stay awake. I used the time to write, draw and stare at the wall intently.
While all of this was more than a little unpleasant, the low point of this train ride came when I realized first that my room was right next to speakers that blasted Vietnamese folk music. Even more amazingly, the speakers lowered to a whisper when they announced what stations were coming up next. Nevertheless, bad turned into I-might-throw-myself-from-this-train worse when one of the men got instant ramen to eat.
My issue with loud eating goes beyond a slight neurosis. It ranges from thinking I’d like to take chopsticks and jam them into my ears to deafen myself to full-blown, I’d rather take those chopsticks and jam them into obnoxious eater’s aorta. The vividness and frequency with which I have imagined this is alarming.
I put in my headphones and blasted my loudest rock music. Still, knowing that world class slurping was happening less than three feet away from me, had me on edge. When he finished, I was able to release the tightness in my muscles. The man stood up and walked out, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Ten minutes later he walked back in carrying another steaming Styrofoam bowl of instant ramen. I audibly gasped and roughly stuffed my earbuds back into my ears. I thought I was livid as he hoovered that second bowl of ramen, but when he finished and his wife walked in with ramen for herself, I started seeing red. On top of her slurping, she had this lip smack that permeated through my music. I couldn’t even sketch to distract myself. I just stared at the wall wishing I was not so attached to my stuff that I couldn’t leave it unattended, just so that I could be away from these wretched people.
Finally, after 11 hours and 45 minutes, the train ride ended. The moment the door opened, I leapt from the car like I was taking a leap into freedom. Looking back at that atrocious form of transportation, I vowed that would be my last Vietnamese train experience.
Side note: while my train experience was awful due to my own idiosyncrasies, I have since heard several horror stories about the train involving rats, roaches, and people propping their bare, dirty feet and your armrest. I am unbelievably perturbed that I had not heard about what a nightmare Vietnamese train travel is online.
On the other hand, buses are cleaner, more comfortable and not nearly as noisy. Busses over trains is my most solid travel advice for any trip you may take to Vietnam.